Pittsburgh Troublemakers Go to School

Eighty activists, including members of the Steelworkers, Transit Union (ATU), United Electrical Workers (UE), Service Employees, and AFSCME, gathered Saturday for a day of trainings, workshops, and discussions: the Pittsburgh Troublemakers School.

The day’s activities focused on preparing members for active campaigns in the Pittsburgh area and at their worksites. Speakers highlighted fights against plant and factory closings and against cuts to education and services, and three labor-community partnerships that have emerged in the city.

Photos courtesy of Mark Haller, UE Local 506.

One speaker was C.J. Patterson, a 14-year lab technician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the expanding corporate hospital chain that employs 50,000 workers across the state. Patterson and other UPMC workers organizing with the Service Employees have faced retaliation for their union activities—some were fired, then reinstated after a Labor Board complaint.

UPMC workers have tied their organizing drive to a broader fight to hold the chain accountable to the community; they are challenging its tax exemption. Recently 1,000 people showed up for a rally to support their organizing.

Common Theme: Community

Speakers stressed how important it is for unions to connect workers’ issues to the communities they live in, whether the fight is over health care, transportation, or public schools.



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Bus drivers and riders from Pittsburghers for Public Transportation spoke about their joint fight against cutbacks to bus routes and services, on top of attacks on workers’ pay and benefits. Mike Harms, bus driver and recording secretary of ATU Local 85, explained how the union got members involved in the campaign.

Sue Garza, a school counselor, came from Chicago to describe her union’s successful strike last year and its ongoing resistance to attacks on public schools. Before they went on strike, Chicago teachers got the community on their side by fighting for smaller class sizes and more school services.

Jim Savage, Steelworkers Local 10-1 President, recounted the hard-fought campaign where they saved 1,200 jobs by keeping two eastern Pennsylvania oil refineries from being shut down. The union’s years of being known as a fighter, Savage said, gave workers negotiating power with the company to find a buyer while they rallied members and got lawmakers on their side.

The UE’s Larsene Taylor spoke about her arrest at North Carolina’s Moral Mondays actions in the state capital, where crowds have committed civil disobedience against legislators’ attacks on voting rights, unemployment benefits, and workers’ rights.

The school also included basic steward and organizing trainings and workshops on fighting discrimination, organizing without a contract, understanding the current economic crisis and recovery, and running for local union office.

The Troublemakers School was hosted by Fight Back Pittsburgh, a membership organization that promotes non-traditional worker organizing, with both union and non-union members.

The biggest Troublemakers School of them all will hit Chicago next April 4-6: Labor Notes’ national conference. Make plans now.

Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor Notes.samantha@labornotes.org